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Serbia-Kosovo agreement: political breakthrough or jobs for the boys?

By Blog Admin, on 25 April 2013

Kosovo Police

Photo:Valdete Hasani CC BY-SA 3.0

The widely hailed agreement reached betweeen Serbia and Kosovo entrenches the power of clentelistic elites and is no real cause for celebration argues Eric Gordy .

 The agreement signed last Friday between Serbia and Kosovo has been widely interpreted as a major breakthrough. In some respects it is, as it paves the way for resolution of a dispute over the status of the northern municipalities in Kosovo and for both countries to forge their paths to eventual membership in the European Union. In other ways it does not, as it comes too late and does too little to fundamentally alter the situation.

The agreement responds to a gesture made by outgoing prime minister Vojislav Koštunica when Kosovo declared independence in 2008, when he established parallel institutions of government and law enforcement in four municipalities along Kosovo’s northern border where about 40% of the ethnic Serb population is concentrated.

The move had two purposes: 1) to create an electoral base for his Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), which was otherwise marginal and Belgrade-centred, and 2) to place a long-term obstacle in the way of any eventual agreements about Kosovo’s status.

The government that followed him, nominally opponents of Koštunica, left his parallel structures untouched in the vain hope of expanding its own base to encompass parts of the scattered “patriotic bloc”. It was only with the return of right-wing parties to power in 2012, paradoxically, that some movement occurred: they saw in an eventual agreement with Kosovo a chance both to satisfy powerful international political actors and to marginalise their potential competitors in the Church and on the far right.

So after fourteen years of waiting and five years of negotiation, what does the agreement involve? According to the unofficial text (no official one has been released, so everyone has been using the version published by the Kosovo paper Gazeta Express, it is mostly an agreement about the establishment of lobbies and the employment of personnel.

The agreement provides for the establishment of an “Association/Community” of municipalities where Serbs comprise a majority of the population, initially made up of the four disputed northern municipalities but “open to any other municipalities” (Article 1). The body “will have full overview of the areas of economic development, education, health, urban and rural planning” (Article 4) and “shall have a representative role to the central authorities” (Article 6). So fundamentally what is established here is a political lobby with limited authority but with a guarantee of employment for politicians who became entrenched in the parallel structures, with the Kosovo government assuming the duty of financing their maintenance.

There is a little bit of a twist here, though. First, the provision that other municipalities may join can be taken as an invitation to the more numerous Serb population south of the Ibar river. The people in this group do not share the interests and goals of the leadership in the northern municipalities, and more importantly do not reject the state in which they live – and their politicians could potentially outvote the northern politicians. Second, Article 12 provides for elections to be held in the northern municipalities. These municipalities have never had open elections, and so a chance will emerge to see whether the leadership that has been operating to date is representative.

The second major part of the agreement involves police and courts. Although all police units are subordinate to the Kosovo Police, “The composition of the KP in the north will reflect the ethnic composition of the population of the four municipalities” (Article 9) and officers will report to a Regional Commander nominated to the Interior Ministry by the mayors of the northern municipalities. Otherwise, “Members of other Serbian security structures will be offered a place in equivalent Kosovo structures” (Article 8).

Similarly with judges, a special chamber populated by Kosovo Serb judges will be appointed to practice legal oversight in the northern municipalities (Articles 10 and 11). So together with guaranteed employment for current politicians, the agreement provides guaranteed employment for politically connected police officers and judges.

More telling than what the agreement provides is what it does not say. Although the dispute has been presented as involving the rights of ethnic Serb citizens, two words that appear nowhere in the text are “citizens” and “rights”. This is an agreement between elites for the transfer of clients from one sponsor to another.

So aside from repeating that political elites are principally concerned with maintaining the privileges of their clients, what does the agreement tell us? First of all, the protracted negotiations and gymnastics engaged to get to signing tell us that the governments of the region are not capable of resolving even simple problems without strong encouragement from outside, in this case from the EU.

Second, it tells us about lessons unlearned from the earlier conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina – for both domestic and international political actors, the solution to political problems lies in enforced segregation, which is inconsistent with most of the history and culture of the region but perfectly consistent with some narrow political programmes. Third, it tells us that even after the departure of regimes that established it, clientelism is very much alive.

Finally, what consequences is the agreement likely to have? As always, this depends on implementation. The agreement is supremely vague on the question of implementation, promising simply that “an implementation committee will be established by the two sides” (Article 15). Already there is dispute over whether the agreement means that Serbia has recognised Kosovo as an independent state. There will be many more disputes in the coming months.

An agreement is certainly better than no agreement, but it is difficult to be celebratory. The two parties have done as little as they could get away with after an unconscionably long time.

Eric Gordy is Senior Lecturer in South East European Politics at UCL-SSEES. His research focuses on  the politics and culture of the contemporary Balkans. His new book Guilt, responsibility and denial: The past at stake in post-Milosevic Serbia is forthcoming with University of Pennsylvania Press.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL